“The lack of medical care is leading to some pretty scary situations for people who are detained there for months and months,” one attorney said.
BuzzFeed News Reporter
Josmith used to dread nightfall inside his ICE detention cell because it meant he’d be struggling to breathe for hours.
The 25-year-old Haitian asylum-seeker was diagnosed with asthma in 2015 and was able to control it with medication — but after entering ICE’s Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, Josmith’s condition worsened as he struggled to breathe throughout the day, and it was always harder when he tried to sleep. Fear of catching COVID in the detention center’s tight quarters didn’t help.
Josmith said he felt like he was “suffocating” and that he “could die here.”
ICE detainees like Josmith, who due to preexisting medical conditions are at greater risk of serious side effects from contracting COVID-19, can be released under a federal court injunction issued in 2020. Amid soaring COVID rates, a judge at the time ordered authorities to identify all ICE detainees who are at higher risk of severe illness and death and to strongly consider releasing them unless they posed a danger to property or people.
In an Oct. 7, 2020, court filing in the case, US District Judge Jesus Bernal said that “only in rare cases” would ICE fail to release at-risk immigrants who are not subject to mandatory detention.
Hundreds of immigrants have since been released. But as the pandemic progressed, attorneys and advocates said immigrants like Josmith fell through the cracks. In order to get some medically vulnerable people released, attorneys had to pressure ICE, but advocates said that’s not a solution for detainees who don’t have access to legal representation.
Early on in his stay, Josmith, who agreed to be identified for this story only by his first name, said he filed more than a dozen requests to see a doctor about his asthma, but they were ignored. He was able to finally see a doctor in early February after nearly collapsing from a lack of oxygen. Medical staffers at Cibola County Correctional Center, which is operated for ICE by the private prison company CoreCivic, told Josmith he had high blood pressure. He was given medication and told he would be seeing a doctor again in the morning, but that never happened. On Feb. 7, three days after he collapsed, he was given an inhaler to treat his asthma, ICE said.
His lawyer, Zoe Bowman from Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said that despite his medical condition, ICE refused to release him under the court order.
What may have contributed to Josmith’s struggle to be released is that he didn’t initially tell immigration officials that he had asthma. Bowman said Josmith later tried to tell medical staff by filing requests to see a doctor that were all ignored. In an attempt to get Josmith released, Bowman had also submitted a copy and certified translation of his asthma diagnosis from Haiti.
“Having asthma is a clear-cut and straight reason for him to be released,” Bowman said.
Bowman noted that she’s had to send multiple emails to ICE and make phone calls to push for the release of immigrants with high-risk medical conditions who’ve been in detention for months.
“It doesn’t feel like ICE is at all complying with the order as it should,” she said. “There are very few pro bono lawyers serving thousands of ICE beds, and it feels like we’re only coming across these cases by chance.”
When Bowman asked ICE about the multiple medical requests Josmith submitted, the agency told her it hadn’t received any since November.
“It seems like this bizarre situation where the official records aren’t matching what’s happening inside detention,” she said. “The lack of medical care is leading to some pretty scary situations for people who are detained there for months and months.”
Josmith was released from Cibola County Correctional Center on Feb. 16 after the agency received an inquiry about his status from BuzzFeed News.
In a statement, an ICE official said Josmith had been given an Albuterol inhaler on Feb. 7 and released on Feb. 16. He was released on an alternative to detention program, ICE said, which uses technology and case management to track immigrants outside of detention.
“ICE continues to evaluate individuals based upon the CDC’s guidance for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention was appropriate,” the immigration enforcement agency said.
ICE said Josmith had been ordered removed by an immigration judge, but filed a pending appeal on Jan. 14.
Matthew Davio, a spokesperson for Corecivic, in a statement said the company cares deeply about every person in their care. All of their immigration facilities are monitored closely by ICE and are required to undergo regular reviews, he said.
Cibola County Correctional Center’s health services team follows CoreCivic’s standards for medical care and ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards, Davio said.
Corecivic, Davio said, doesn’t have a role or influence over the release process for medically vulnerable immigrants because of COVID-19.
“Our staff are trained and held to the highest ethical standards. Our commitment to keeping those entrusted to our care safe and secure is our top priority,” Davio said. “We vehemently deny any allegations of detainee mistreatment.”
The Cibola County Correctional Center has for years come under criticism for its lack of medical care for the immigrants held there.
In 2020, Reuters found hundreds of unanswered requests for medical attention at ICE’s only dedicated detention unit for transgender immigrants, which was housed at the Cibola County Correctional Center. The report also found that quarantine procedures were poorly enforced and that detainees with mental illnesses and chronic diseases received deficient treatment. These problems led to the temporary closure and transfer of transgender women to other ICE facilities.
A secret memo sent by a top Department of Homeland Security official to ICE leadership obtained by BuzzFeed News, revealed how immigrants at Cibola County Correctional Center sometimes waited up to 17 days for urgently needed medical care, were exposed to poor sanitation and quarantine practices during a chickenpox and mumps outbreak, and didn’t get medications as directed by a doctor for illnesses such as diabetes, epilepsy, and tuberculosis.
ICE’s Cibola County facility has had 44 confirmed COVID cases since it started testing in 2020. The total number of infections jumped from 25 in mid-January to 44 on Feb. 1. The average daily population for the facility has been about 83 since November.
However, the UCLA School of Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, which is tracking infections among detainees throughout the US, said the actual number is likely much higher than reported by ICE because testing has been limited.
“Any number ICE is reporting is an undercount because they’re not testing widely,” said Joshua Manson, a spokesperson for the UCLA project, which observed several unexplained fluctuations in the cumulative number of COVID cases and tests that ICE reports.
The project gave ICE an F grade on its “data reporting and quality” scorecard.
Since ICE started testing for the virus, there have been 40,358 confirmed cases across all detention facilities, according to the agency’s own numbers. As of Monday there were 1,001 active cases.
Another Haitian asylum-seeker, Fristzner, who declined to give his full name because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his pending case, said he also struggled to receive medical care in ICE detention as he tried to get released.
In 2015, the 32-year-old lost his right eye in a stabbing after participating in a protest against a local politician in Haiti. The men who attacked him were sent by the politician, he said. Fristzner moved to other parts of the island nation, but bandits, who control much of Haiti, would always threaten him. After being attacked again in 2017 by armed men inside his home, he left Haiti.
Fristzner tried to live in Chile, but said the racism and lack of immigration status made it difficult for Black immigrants. A group of men once beat and robbed him on the street while making racist comments, he said. So, like thousands of other Haitians in South America, Fristzner made the treacherous journey to the US–Mexico border last summer. Along the way, he crossed 10 countries and passed through the Darién Gap jungle, a route that UNICEF calls one of the most dangerous routes in the world, where Fristzner said he saw dead bodies as he made his way north.
Eventually, Fristzner joined thousands of Haitians who crossed the border into Del Rio, Texas, in search of asylum, only to be forced to wait for days in squalid conditions underneath a bridge. After being processed and taken into ICE custody in September 2021, Fristzner said he started to worry that the area where his eye used to be was infected. To make matters worse, he said, he also experienced a severe decrease in his overall vision with his left eye and worried he was going to completely lose his ability to see.
In ICE detention, Fristzner said, he couldn’t read his Bible, make phone calls, or do other basic tasks without help because of his vision loss. Bowman, who also took him on as a client, said ICE initially refused to release him because it said he was a threat to public safety, despite having no criminal record and no immigration history in the US.
Fristzner said he submitted at least 15 requests to see a doctor to no avail. Meanwhile, with each passing day, his vision worsened and he grew more anxious.
“I only have one eye,” Fristzner said. “How am I supposed to live if I can’t see with it?”
He believes his eye got infected from the days he spent under the bridge in Del Rio. He tried calling Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso for pro bono representation — but, like most organizations working with immigrants, it is overwhelmed and people seeking help aren’t able to get through. Still, Fristzner continued to leave messages.
“One time I called at night when everyone was asleep and I prayed to God to please help me,” he said. “The next morning, an official told me I had a legal visit from them.”
Bowman was eventually able to start pressuring ICE and get him released, but only after the agency fielded inquiries from a reporter and member of Congress. Fristzner is now living with his sister in Indiana.
He was later diagnosed with glaucoma, a condition that typically results in slow vision loss because the nerve connecting the eye to the brain is damaged. Still, he hopes to one day go to school and looks forward to completing his asylum case.
“I’m with my family now and doing a lot better,” he said. “But I keep thinking about my friends in detention who are sick and can’t get out. I think of them because I know they’re suffering a lot.”
Adolfo Flores is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in McAllen, Texas..
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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.